What Will Asheville City Council Decide To Do On Districts?

Sep 17, 2019

Asheville city council is getting closer to taking action to sidestep the North Carolina General Assembly regarding the use of districts for future city council elections.  A final decision won't come until next month, but a public hearing to be held next week could be a sign of which way a majority of council members are leaning.

Last year, the Republican- controlled General Assembly approved a measure mandating Asheville use council districts for future elections instead of keeping the current system where all six seats (plus mayor, a position that is also a part of city council) are elected at-large.  City council elections are officially non-partisan, but there are no Republicans currently on council and haven't been for several years.  In 2017, city voters via referendum rejected using districts by a 3-to-1 margin.  Henderson County GOP Senator sponsored a districts bill the next year anyway in Raleigh, which eventually passed.  The measure also moved council elections to even numbered years (an amendment put forth by Buncombe County Democratic Senator Terry Van Duyn) and also did away with primary elections for council.

Council members considered suing to stop districts, but over the summer Asheville city attorney Brad Branham told lawmakers such a suit would be very costly, and would not overturn districts even if it was successful.  After that meeting in July, three options took shape for the council to consider -

DO NOTHING

If no action is taken, then five districts will be used for future city council elections, starting next year.  One seat would remain elected at-large.

AMEND THE CITY CHARTER TO KEEP THE AT-LARGE SYSTEM

This option - which took shape over the summer - would skirt the General Assembly bill.  At the next city council meeting September 24th, a public hearing will be held on two proposed amendments to the city charter.  The first would re-institute the at-large system, the other would bring back primary elections for city council seats.  The fact a public hearing is being held on this option could be a sign that it's the way a majority of council members are leaning, as holding such a hearing is the second legal move council must take to amend the charter.  The first is introducing such a change at a prior meeting (which happened September 10th) and the third and final move is voting for it (which could happen at the next council meeting in October).  Approving this option does risk the General Assembly, still controlled by Republicans, of taking a retalitory action against the city to stop it.

KAPOOR'S ALTERNATIVE PLAN

Councilman Vijay Kapoor, the top vote-getter in the last council election in 2017, has put forth an alternative plan.  It would keep the districts in place but expand council by two extra seats, both of which would be elected at-large.  Kapoor is now adding to that proposal, telling BPR in an interview Tuesday he wants the city create an independent commission to draw the council district lines – a nod to the ongoing gerrymandering drama in Raleigh.  “Why couldn’t we be the first city in North Carolina to have an independent redistricting commission for our city council lines?," Kapoor said.  "If folks are looking to make a statement to Raleigh, this is the perfect way of doing it.”  He's also calling for term limits for council members, saying the two-term limit is in reponse to feedback to his initial proposal.  Kapoor campaigned against districts in 2017, but now supports them, believing that system would best serve all residents of Asheville.

This issue is one of two that has dominated city council business all year.  The other is hotel construction, and a seperate council public hearing will be held September 24th on a temporary moratorium on building new hotels in the city.  Because of expected large crowds to speak on both issues, the city has moved the council meeting that evening to a larger venue.  Instead of council chambers, it will be held in the banquet hall of the U.S. Cellular Center.  It starts at 5 p.m. and residents are allowed to give comments during both hearings.  Parking in the Civic Center Garage that day will be free starting at 4:30 p.m. until the meeting ends to accomodate those who wish to attend.